Activists, young people discuss reform at juvenile justice forum

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Since he was arrested last year for selling crack, Natyia Bowen says he’s been trying to turn his life around – keeping out of trouble, going to community gatherings, meeting people who he hopes can get him a job.

But there could be complications. Bowen was arrested at 17 – legally an adult – and was let go with probation. But that felony mark will stay on his record, and he fears it will keep him from a career in his field of interest, forensic science.

It’s unfortunate, Bowen says, but growing up in Austin, getting arrested is a normal part of getting older.

“If you’re raised in a certain community, there are certain things you’re going to be introduced to… having sex early, people trying to get you to sell drugs for them,” said Bowen, now 18 and a student at Westside Holistic Alternative School. “It’s just part of being from the Austin community.”

Bowen was one of about 30 people who attended an Austin town hall meeting Saturday on juvenile justice reform.

The event – held at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St. – was hosted by the Austin Coalition for Youth Justice, an alliance of more than a dozen nonprofits active on the West Side, including the Austin CeaseFire Project, Westside Ministers Coalition and New Birth Christian Center. (Read AustinTalks’ story about an earlier forum hosted by the Austin Coalition for Youth Justice.)

“Austin has a really high arrest rate, and most of those arrests are for survival crimes,” like selling drugs and gambling, said Caitlin Patterson, an attorney with First Defense Legal Aid. “It’s to make money. It’s a job market.”

The 15th Police District, which covers most of Austin, had the third-highest number of youth arrests of the 25 districts in the city, according to 2010 statistics. Of the 19,400 young people in the 15th District, there were 1,975 juvenile arrests. All but seven of those arrested were African-American. The vast majority were (1,777) young African-American men.

“Ten percent of our kids are getting arrested,” Patterson said.”That’s incredible.”

When just felony arrests were considered, Austin ranks even higher – second in the city, with 494 arrests in 2010, the statistics show. Most of those more serious crimes were drug-related violations (316), followed by robbery (53) and aggravated battery (30).

These numbers are especially problematic, Patterson said, because kids who get tangled up in the juvenile justice system tend to become even more criminally involved.

Working in small groups, meeting attendees discussed these numbers and talked about ways to combat the problem. Ideas included more free events for young people, youth centers, more guidance counselors in schools and more jobs geared toward teens. Others pointed to the family as the nucleus for change in behaviors.

Kendrae Johnson, 17, said change should start inside the schools. He said he’d like to see teachers who are better trained to deal with issues inside the community.

“I had teachers that used to tell me, ‘I get paid whether you learn or not,’” said Johnson, a student at Proviso East High School in Maywood. “Are you trying to make me better or are you trying to put me down?”

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